Monday, April 23, 2012

And We Danced

Two weeks ago I sat in my parents' living room surrounded by boxes.  My little brother, Aaron, had packed up everything he owned in preparation to move to Canada, where he would marry his college sweetheart, Natasha.

The room he shared with our littlest brother growing up looked desloate without his belongings.  His mattress lay bare on the top bunk above Marc's mattress swaddled in flannel sheets, and his closet was cleared out.  The room that has always smelled distinctly of "boy" smelled instead a bit like Goodwill.

I preferred being in the living room full of boxes than in the empty bedroom echoing with memories.

As I stretched out on the living room floor, sunlight poured through the window and landed on a furry ear sticking out of a clear plastic bag nestled in the boxes.  I pulled open the bag and found a well-loved stuffed tiger.  Its fur was matted and its color faded; I think the skin horse from "The Velveteen Rabbit" would have deemed it "real."

I hadn't seen Aaron's stuffed tiger in decades, and its furry face took my breath away from all the memories it evoked.

I remembered a chubby toddler waddling across the cul-de-sac, his right arm vigorously pumping, his left arm clutching his tiger as he tried to keep up with his older sisters.

I remembered a blond waif lying by the heater on a cold winter's day a few years later, snuggling his tiger with a contented smile on his face.

I remembered a boy and his little brother who loved to dig in their mom's garden, a pile of garden tools at their feet, a stuffed tiger resting against the nearby fence.

And then I remembered a boy whose body began to stretch and voice started to crack — an adolescent who gently set Tiger on a shelf where he watched the boy from afar.

Tiger watched Aaron grow into a teenager and then a man.  He watched him make difficult decisions, learn to be a leader, fall in love, and work hard to save up for a ring and then a honeymoon.

And now Tiger gets to watch Aaron grow into a husband and a father, and I can't help thinking Tiger is one lucky stuffed animal.

Aaron has a way of  making the people who know him feel lucky.  Blessed.

And so even as I choked back tears watching him drive out of the cul-de-sac for the last time as my single little brother, I felt blessed.  Blessed to have grown up with him, blessed to be his sister, blessed to be his friend.  Blessed to be included in the celebration that ensued in Canada five days later when he said "I do" to the woman he loves.

As I walked down the aisle on the wedding day wearing my bridesmaid dress, I passed row after row of family and friends who, like Tiger, have been with Aaron since childhood.  But these people have been involved in the most intimate of ways: babysitting him, taking him on impromptu adventures, laughing with him, listening to him, challenging him, confiding in him, crying with him.  They filled the pews with memories, and I think their souls must have been bursting with thanksgiving, excited to witness this sacred covenant.

My dad did the ceremony.  He reminded us of the first wedding, when God fashioned Eve for Adam from his rib.  God was the first Father to give away his daughter.  And he was the first Father to give away his Son, after Adam and Eve failed to love God and infected the world with sin.  Because of God's Son we can love each other well, till death do us part, in sickness and in health, in weakness and in brokenness.  For this we celebrate.

When Aaron was saying his vows I realized the last time he declared his love and commitment to someone so publicly was when he was baptized.  His unity with Christ is evident, as is Natasha's.  And so it was with deep satisfaction that I watched them exchange vows, with the knowledge that together they will live united in Christ's death and resurrection, as one.

I watched Aaron's face closely throughout the ceremony.  It was etched with awe and adoration as he watched his bride walk down the aisle.  When he said "I do" too early his eyes lit up with laughter.  As he carefully repeated his vows he was earnest, eager and solemn.  And when Natasha began to say her vows he smiled a smile I'd seen before:

It was with this deepest delight that the post-wedding festivities erupted in celebration in a rustic barn surrounded by mountains.

The reception site

Old friends chatted freely, reminiscing over supper and hot drinks. Close friends and family toasted tributes to the bride and groom, and forks clanked against champagne glasses to instigate dozens of kisses.

Best man, little brother Marc, giving a toast

When the dinner plates were cleared and the cake cut and consumed, one side of the barn was opened up to let in the fresh country air and sunset.

And as the dusky twilight invited the stars to speckle the sky, we danced.


Photo Credit: My wonderful cousin Sharalyn and my amazing aunt Shannon took most of the wedding photos (Shannon took the stunning sunset photo)

© by scj

Monday, April 16, 2012

Because He Lives

Late Saturday night, the day before Easter, I was about to climb into my childhood bed when my mom came to the bedroom door with light in her eyes.

"Guess what we need to do?" she asked me and my little sister, who was spending the night

"It's tradition!" she said, "And this is our last chance to do it before Aaron moves."

My mom has always tried to cultivate a culture of celebration in our house by creating traditions.  Our Easter tradition is one of my favorites.

Every Easter when we were kids my mom taught us about trees. Sturdy trees, slight trees, blossoming trees, and a forbidden tree.

She explained that long before the pine trees stood erect on the distant horizon, or the willow trees bowed beneath the blue sky, God existed, all by himself.

He didn't need people, or planets, or atoms to exist, but he wanted to create people and planets made of atoms, so he used words to make things appear from nowhere.

His life-breath spread stars across the sky, coaxed trees from the ground, and kissed life into man.

He loved the things he spoke into existence, but he was especially fond of the man and woman he created, my mom explained.

He showed them his love in many ways.  He gave them special names, Adam and Eve, and he let them live in a verdant paradise teeming with magnificent animals. It was cool, lush, and full of trees laden with fruit popping with color and exploding with flavor.

He also gave man and woman souls, created in His image.  Their souls were marvelous; they could create, and imagine, and recognize beauty, goodness, and truth.  But most marvelous of all was their ability to love.  

They could choose to love and enjoy God's goodness, truth, and beauty, if they wanted, but God would never force them to love him.

Love never forces others to reciprocate.  

And Love is most delighted when the people he loves choose to love him back.

So he gave them an opportunity to choose Him.

He created a tree loaded with fruit that he asked Adam and Eve not to eat.  He hoped that they would love him enough to trust and obey him.  

But Adam and Eve decided their ideas were better than God’s, and so they chose to eat the fruit of the forbidden tree.  

Their love for self became the thing that motivated them, rather than a love for God, and when their focus became inward they turned their backs to God.  

Anyone who rejects God is shunning the source of life and goodness, and choosing death and badness, my mom explained.

That's why eating the fruit from the forbidden tree changed everything.

Death, badness, ugliness, and lies—all the opposite of God—infected all humans and the earth they lived on.

It grieved God's loving heart.

Humans chose death and separation from God, and God's justice demanded they got what they chose.  

But God’s mercy drove him to make plans involving another tree. He would die in our place on this tree in order to satisfy God's justice, making it possible for humans to enjoy God's life and love forever, once again.

My mom wanted us to remember how Jesus hung on the hard, splintery wood of the tree, his broken body food—Bread—for us; Bread that, if we choose it, would satisfy our deepest soul hungers, giving us life and restored relationship with God.

And so every January we would cut the branches off our Christmas tree, and then saw the trunk in half. As our tiny fingers stripped the tree of its branches we would remember the day Jesus put on skin and came to earth so he could give us Life, Himself. 

We would store the trunk’s pieces in our garage until the day before Easter when we would fashion the two pieces of the trunk into the shape of a cross, and stick it in a bucket full of dirt and rocks.

My favorite job was placing flowers in the bucket at the base of the cross, a reminder that neither of the death-bearing trees had the last word.  The Bread of Life gives us new life-that-conquers-death.

Then we would fasten a sign to the cross declaring "He is Risen!"  

And we would put the cross in our front yard.

Early the next morning the Easter sun would spill over the tips of the pine trees and cut through the darkness, 

an announcement to the world that darkness and death are no longer the victors, 

because He Lives.

© by scj

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Thursday Things: Home Again, Home Again, Jiggity Jig

This week I’ve been falling asleep to the liquid laughter of spring rain dancing on the roof.  My little brother gets married this weekend, so I’ve come home to the Pacific Northwest for Easter break.

It's been a right good time.  I'll write about the Easter and wedding festivities in next week's posts; in the meantime, here's a Thursday list to celebrate the week.

1. I never tire of the expansive skies.

This is the view on the way home from the Portland airport.
 It always thrills me.  On clear days you can see Mt. Hood to the right.

2. I am never prepared for the frigid temperatures.

3. Thank goodness the clouds parted and we had sun for a few days.  Little brother and I took advantage of the warm weather and went on one last roller blading trek around the neighborhood before he gets married.

I have grown rather cautious in my old age and convinced Aaron to wear wrist guards and knee pads along with me.

I was also determined to also wear a helmet before venturing beyond the driveway.

4. All I could find was this hard hat.

5.  Fortunately my mom was able to dig up a couple of helmets from the bowels of the garage—probably from the same place all of the stray socks like to hide.

It was a much better look.  Aaron was especially fond of his platinum helmet.

6. My aunt, uncle and grandma flew in from Phoenix for the wedding two days ago.  My grandma is spunky, hilarious, and a fashion diva.  You never know what treasures she'll pull from her closet.

Most recently she unveiled a rather unorthodox fur.

Is it a mink?

A fox?

Or a weasel?

Whatever it is, I'm afraid it's going to walk off when no one is looking.

7. This last picture sums up the rest of the week, aside from family, Easter festivities, and wedding prep.

Notice my hair.  This is post-workout hair.

I went to the gym earlier this week and worked out for the first time since I got sick 19 months ago.  I am so thankful for continued healing, and Oh! how I have missed the feeling of sweat pouring down my face, lactic acid flooding my legs, and sharp pain spreading through my chest.  Hallelujah.

Notice my outfit.  Clearly looking good is a priority when I'm vacation.

This is the face I make when I realize how amazing my outfit is. The dark circles around my eyes are from tear-streaked mascara.  I watched almost an entire season of "The Voice" in three days.  Boy is that show a tear-jerker.  Beautiful stories, beautiful music.  The fingerprints of God all over these people.

I just love vacation.

© by scj

Monday, April 9, 2012

Hoping for Happily Ever After

I’ve been watching ABC’s new television series Once Upon a Time this winter. The series chronicles the plight of a band of fairy tale characters that have been cursed by a wicked queen.

Her curse has thrust them from their fairy tale kingdom into our world, stripped them of their memories of their former lives, and damned them to a life without a ‘happily ever after’.

They wander through life having forgotten who they are.

Not surprisingly, their days lack direction, their relationships easily crumble, and their work is rarely satisfying. But still, they dare to hope that life will get better.

Little Red Riding Hood hopes for recognition at work; Prince Charming hopes to be united with his true love, Snow White; and Jiminy Cricket hopes to help people do the right thing. Hope swells and sustains them, for a time. But then the sharp thorns of injustice and human fallibility puncture their hope, leaving them deflated and disappointed.

I can’t help but remember the wise observation from Proverbs when I watch these fairy tale characters flounder:

“Hope deferred makes the heart sick."

I wish this heart sickness were confined to fairyland. It is disease that can consume and devour, with the power to wolf down joy and drain life of its appeal.

It makes hope feel like a not-so-great thing.

And yet the apostle Paul reminds us that there is a hope that does not disappoint:

Click here to join me at Positively Human for the rest of the article!

© by scj

Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Mysterious Traveler

A number of you have asked me how Mascot is doing, so I reckon an update in is in order.  (Read the adventures of Mascot here, here, and here).

Alas, a voracious fungus devoured most of my once-lush geraniums, leaving them rather skeletal. The home that formerly sheltered Mascot from the natural evils of the compound left him exposed and vulnerable in the end.  And so he fled.  I miss him, and am working fervently to nurse my geraniums back to health, with the hope that he can safely return one day.

In the meantime, I had an unexpected visitor this week.

She tiptoed carefully across my french door's frame before quietly resting in the cool shade of the eave.

Occasionally, she fanned her wings, as if to draw spring's fresh breeze into herself.

I wonder if she's resting from a long journey? And I wonder who she is?

Perhaps she is a young princess from some far-off butterfly kingdom who grew tired of always fluttering about her father's small dominion.  And perhaps one day she saw a handsome monarch butterfly dance by the kingdom before flying off to some distant, unexplored meadow. And maybe she was suddenly overcome by the desire to get out, to explore, to know the rest of the world and, hopefully, to fall in love.

Sadly, as is the case with most I-must-break-free-from-my-cage-of-a-life-and-see-the-world-where I will-no-doubt-fall-in-love stories, she endured a tragedy along the way.

This cat tore a chunk out of her wing.

You will always be the villain in the stories I tell, oh ye nefarious one.

It seems just yesterday Mascot was gripping my door, his three legs splayed and trembling, thanks to you, Mr. Cat.  I should have done much more than merely banish you from the compound. I should have called the p.o.u.n.d.  I have learned my lesson. May no disabled insect ever cling to my door because of you again.

On a positive note, my door seems to welcome the disabled.  I like that.  I hope it's always this way.

Anyway, I wish I had some sort of elixir of life to renew the princess butterfly's strength—perhaps buttercup nectar—but I don't tend to keep any form of elixir of life on hand, and so she flew away after a 20-minute rest.

For all you 'Where's Waldo' fans, the butterfly is
 just about to fly over the wall.  Can you spot her?

Princess Butterfly, may you find buttercup nectar just over the next hill, and may it rejuvenate your frail body so that you can find the monarch butterfly you are supposed to fall in love with, and may the two of you find an apple-orchard-that-is-adjacent-to-a-buttercup-field to live in, happily ever after. The end.

I just love having mysterious visitors.

© by scj

Monday, April 2, 2012

A Star Named Celeste

A few weeks ago my friend Jessica, a novelist, and I discussed an idea she had for a fable about desire.

Her seed of a thought thrilled me, and the story that grew out of it a few days later thrilled me even more.  She captured with her tale what I could only hope to capture with propositional truth.  I think this is because, as C.S. Lewis reminds us, sometimes fairy stories say best what needs to be said.*

Today is a very good day, friends, because Jessica has given me permission to share her story with you.

And so, without further ado I give you:

"A Fable"

By Jessica Brown

Once upon a time, a star named Celeste lived in the night sky. This star burned bright and clear, sending its diamond light through the vast darkness.

But this task brought Celeste no joy. For the one planet that could see her light was ridiculous.

The beings on this planet could not, like her, simply live. For them, living meant needing. They always needed something—food, water, wine, love, war. Need, need, need. She, who could live for eons without anything, despised them.

Then, one night, one of the far-flung comets swung by. He brought Celeste a message: her time had arrived.

“Time for what?”

“Your time to see what it is about.”

Way down in the dense, molten of her core, something stirred.

And the stirring got stronger and stronger and stronger, and she got hotter and hotter and hotter, and she started moving faster and faster and faster—

And her whole being burst into sun-flare,

And she was suddenly much smaller than she had ever been, and much heavier, and much stranger.

“Where am I?” she asked. “What am I? And what is this I’ve landed on?”

And she knew that she was on that small planet, that she was a human, and that the small, sharp things she was kneeling on was grass.

She rose, and looked about her.

“This is that planet with those poor, stupid beings!”

And she looked about her again. But the stirring that had begun out in the vast sky had not stopped. In fact, it was deepening. It felt like it was making a hole inside of her.

She saw one of the poor, stupid beings walking by. It was taller than her, and had shorter hair that was darker than hers. She held out her hand.

“Please,” she said. “I’m not sure what to do. I’ve got a terrible pain, just here, in the middle of me. Is this what it means to be a human?”

This person looked at her kindly.

“You’re just hungry!” he said. “What you need is a good meal. Come with me.”

And he brought her to a place called a diner, and she ate things called eggs and toast and hash-browns. And the smell and the taste of the things outside her went into her, and she was amazed by this.

“Now, I’m sure you feel a lot better!” said the other human being.

And she realized that while she was eating, that awful stirring had gone away.

“You are right.”

And she was suddenly a little afraid. And the fear began another stirring, now in her head and chest. She put her hand on her head and a hand on her chest, and asked, “Is the meal supposed to fill these places?”

And he looked at her kindly.

“I shouldn’t think so. But I know what you need for that!”

This news made Celeste so happy that she didn’t even hear the word ‘need.’

They left the diner and walked to a store with a sign that said “VINYL.”

“Vinyl?” Celeste asked.

“I know it’s old-fashioned,” the human said. “But it does the trick.”

So they went in and put on huge ear phones. And the sound that moved through her was like blue light from faraway stars. It made her sway, so she swayed.

“What is this?” she asked, swaying.

“U2 of course!”

And then he played some other piece of music, with something called a violin. The sound pierced her, and filled her. She was a little afraid, and vastly amazed.

Then, the door in the store opened. A cold wind moved across her.

“What about this?” Celeste asked, rubbing her bare arms and legs. “How do we take care of filling what’s bare?”

“No problem—you’re in Los Angeles!” her friend cried. And they walked north to a large park and a broad, sunny green space. They sat down together.

The light of the sun rested on her. She laid down and closed her eyes, and the warmth filled her. Again she was amazed.

But it happened so fast! The bigness of the want, and the grandness of the fill.

Celeste sat up and looked at her friend. “I wish I had something to take this day in more slowly,” she said.

He looked at her thoughtfully.

“Men through the ages have wanted the same thing. Let’s go get some wine.”

And they walked to a café and sat on a patio, and shared a bottle of wine. And the deeply colored liquid entered into her like sunshine and food both. She thought, with fear and delight, I am getting a need to have a fill.

And she looked across at her friend and did not despise him at all.

“I am Celeste. What is your name?”


“Johnny, I feel that I have something lodged right here—” and she pointed three inches below the base if her throat. “I don’t know if it’s happiness or sadness, but it’s big. I need something to get it out.”

And Johnny looked at her thoughtfully.

“That might be the wine talking, but either way, let’s go get some laughs.”

So they went to the cinema and took in a comedy. And as Celeste was laughing in the dark room of the cinema, she felt as if she were shining out, just like her star self. That’s what laughter is, she thought. How wrong I have been about these humans.

But when the credits started rolling, something happened. The seat suddenly felt small. But it wasn’t the seat, it was her skin.

As the lights came up, she asked, “Johnny, do you ever feel cramped? In your own skin?”

He nodded emphatically. “Why do you think I play soccer?”

And so they went south to another park, this one with a large flat field. And Celeste didn’t know what she was doing, with all the running and screaming and kicking of the ball. But she knew that when she high-fived Johnny she felt that her skin could never contain her again. How had she ever felt cramped?

It was now early afternoon. Could she possibly be hungry again? She was scared to say so. Surely humans don’t feel hungry twice in one day.

But Johnny must have felt hungry too, because they got something called Chinese-Takeaway. And as she was eating it, she was afraid by the amount of need in one day.

“How, Johnny,” she asked, “Can you just LET GO?”

He thought. “There is a lookout on a hike I take,” he said, “Where you can see the trees in their finest array, and hear the birds sing, and feel the wind move through the leaves.”

“Then let’s go!”

And they went on the hike, and as Johnny said, there came a moment when the beauty of the trees and sky and rock was so great she didn’t think about her tummy or her skin or that thing lodged in her chest.

But to her utter dismay, as they came down the mountain path, she felt a stronger stirring in her than ever before.

“Johnny!” Celeste cried. “My eyes! They’re aching! It’s like I need to see!”

And Johnny, resourceful human he was proving to be, replied, “There’s only one thing for that. Van Gough.” So they went together to a white-stone museum on a hill.

And as Celeste faced the painting, her eyes filled with tears. It was so beautiful, she felt filled to the back of her eyes.

“Oh Johnny,” she whispered, “I don’t understand. I am filled but the filling makes me hungrier. I want to see more deeply. What is a human to do?”

“Come see what I do,” he said.

And they went to his house, and she saw a little garden and a tiny kitchen, but he took her to the largest room, a room with paints and brushes and canvases. And he said, “Let’s see more deeply. Let’s paint.”

And paint they did. Celeste painted a still life, Plum and Jug.  She saw the color purple as she had never seen it, and the jug became extraordinary.

And the seeing in her making amazed her. “This must be the deepest filling,” she thought, “For I am creating.” And a thought came to her: for each need there is a fill that fits it.

And, lofty thoughts coming real, Celeste was appalled to find she was hungry again. So, Johnny set out cheese and bread. Celeste decided it was the best meal of the day.

After dinner, Johnny showed her to a cot in the back patio for her to sleep in.

Since the sun was set and she was tired, she said goodnight to Johnny and laid down.

The darkness of the night was all around her. It was quiet. Empty.

She was alone for the first time that day.

And the biggest ache of all hit her with the force of a zooming comet, right into the heart of her.

She ran into the house and to Johnny. “It’s so dark and empty! Do all humans feel lost when we’re not seen?”

Johnny flipped on the light and he said, “I will see you, Celeste.”

And when he looked at her, she felt filled in a way that she had never been filled before. And she decided that humans were far, far, far better off than stars.

But deep in the night, Celeste awoke. She heard Johnny’s breathing. “It’s still not enough. I need to be seen more deeply.”

And she quaked at the passion of this need. Surely, surely it was better to be a star. To be strong and bright and complete.

Celeste walked out into the small garden. How did humans fill this final need? Food and wine and soccer and nature and museums and painting and even the presence of Johnny would never fill it. They did not match the hole of that ache. What was big enough to match this emptiness?

What, she thought, raising her face to the dawning sky, is big enough for that?

© by J. Brown

*This is the name of an essay by C.S. Lewis in which he explores how it is that fairy tales sometimes say best what needs to be said. ;)